SIKESTON - The Class 3A, District 1 boys basketball tourney played out according to seeds on Thursday at the Sikeston Field House.
Two-time defending district champion and top-seeded New Madrid County Central hammered No. 4 Kennett 74-41 while No. 2 Dexter held off No. 3 Sikeston 63-51 in the nightcap.
NMCC (24-3) and Dexter (24-3) will square off in the championship game tonight at 7:30 in a battle of state ranked teams.
"I'm just excited to get the win and get back to the championship," said Dexter head coach Eric Sitze. "There's no pressure on our kids, we're just going to come out and try to play as hard as we can."
Sikeston ends its season at 14-12 while Kennett finishes at 17-10.
Against Dexter, Sikeston's offensive woes continued, shooting just 22-of-56 (39 percent) from the field.
The Bulldogs did hit six 3-pointers, but they attempted 21 treys for just a 29 percent clip.
"We had a lot of looks, especially off second and third shots," said Sikeston head coach Gregg Holifield. "Our effort was good, especially on the boards. We'd get two and three opportunities and we'd be right there at the rim and couldn't get it to fall."
Sikeston dominated the boards, grabbing 37 rebounds in the game.
"We weren't running down the loose rebounds at all," said Sitze. "Sikeston did a much better job of that. They were going after them, they were attacking the rebound and we weren't. That got them back in the game."
The Bearcats trailed just once in the game at 2-0. After that, Dexter raced out to a 14-8 first quarter lead.
In the second quarter, Sikeston had the lead cut to 24-19 with under three minutes left in the period, but the Bearcats ended the quarter on a 13-3 run to lead 37-22 at halftime.
"We never could get into a flow," said Holifield. "The second quarter really hurt us. They pulled away from us and we had to battle back. They're very difficult for us to play against because they're so good offensively."
Sikeston trailed by as much as 16 at two different points in the third quarter but they rallied behind the shooting of Justin Freeman and Lavar Morgan.
The two combined to score all 18 of Sikeston's points in the third quarter.
"I think we were nervous," said Sitze. "Sikeston started hitting shots -- they were getting energy from that and the crowd's building on that. You could see it in (our) kids' faces, the nerves a little bit."
Sikeston trailed 47-38 with 1:54 left in the quarter and had a chance to cut the lead to seven, but Morgan missed two free throws.
Dexter rebounded the miss and quickly moved the ball down the floor where Chris Carr scored and was fouled. He made the free throw to complete the 3-point play and all of a sudden the Bearcats were back up 50-38.
Dexter led 52-40 entering the final frame.
The Bulldogs trailed by double figures for most of the fourth quarter. They cut it to 60-51 with about three minutes left but couldn't get any closer as the Bearcats went to the delay game.
"Sikeston came out and played us hard," said Sitze. "They had a good gameplan for us. They played an excellent second half."
Freeman and Morgan carried the Bulldogs on offense with both tying for game-high honors with 17 points.
Freeman nailed 5-of-12 from downtown while Morgan had nine rebounds and five assists.
Sikeston's Lontas McClinton had trouble getting shots to fall but otherwise played a solid game, finishing with nine points, 12 rebounds (six offensive) and three steals.
"We talked about McClinton, Freeman and Morgan," said Sitze.
"It seemed like Freeman had a ton (of points). He missed some shots, but we let him get too many open looks. They've got three scorers out there that we tried to contain as much as we could and we (did that) just enough."
The Bulldogs outscored Dexter 29-26 in the second half but the first half deficit was too much to overcome.
"For us to beat a good team like Dexter we have to have a lead and maintain it basically," said Holifield.
Dexter was led by Kyle Christian's 17 points, Chad Gill's 15 points and Carr's 13 points.
The game was a far cry from the Nov. 30-point whipping the Bearcats put on Sikeston in the second game of the year.
While Sikeston showed improvement, they still struggled in the free throw department where they made just 1-of-6, including two front ends of one-and-one attempts.
Dexter made 13-of-17 from the free throw line.
The Bulldogs, which struggled against Dexter's press in the first matchup, handled it fairly well this time. They turned the ball over 13 times with just two coming in the second half.
"I think we improved over the course of the year," said Holifield. "Offensively we've got to get to where we shoot the basketball better. Free throws hurt us in six or seven ballgames. If we can improve in that area, we'd be up near the 19-20 win total. You look at our schedule and the close games we lost and that became a problem. We've definitely got to improve on that for next season."
The Bulldogs lose three seniors from this year's team, most notably Freeman, who is a three-year starter.
Fred Rowe and Justin Lowes will also graduate this year.
"Justin Freeman, Fred Rowe and Justin Lowes are all three quality individuals," said Holifield. "They're great guys and we're really going to miss them. Justin's played a lot of varsity games for us. He started as a sophomore on a district championship team. We have a lot of fond memories of Justin. I'm sure he's enjoyed his time in our program."
But while the Bulldogs lose Freeman, who is the team's top outside shooter, they return the rest of the lineup which is mostly made up of juniors.
"Our experience has improved so much from last season," said Holifield. "We played so many sophomores last season and it was valuable experience for them, but we've got to make the jump from the junior to senior year and that's a big step. If our players are willing to work and take that step then we've got a chance next season to have a fine team."
The Eagles dominated the game from the start. Leading just 6-4, NMCC went on a 14-0 run to blow the game open.
The Eagles led 24-13 after one quarter and continued to pull away in the second quarter, increasing the lead to 46-25 by halftime.
The Indians outscored NMCC 10-8 in the third quarter but they still trailed 54-35 entering the final frame.
NMCC made sure no comeback was in store as they outscored the Indians 20-6 in the fourth quarter.
"I thought we did a good job of pushing the ball," said NMCC head coach Joby Holland. "We kind of had a lull in the third quarter, but overall I thought they played real well together as a team. I was proud of the job they did tonight. We tried to control (Dustin) Pritchett as good as we could. And we wanted to keep an eye on (Julius) Taylor and (Tyree) Goolsby. The guys we had on them did an admirable job of guarding them."
Taylor finished with a team-high 18 points. Pritchett ended up with just nine points while Goolsby added five.
NMCC was led by Dereke Tipler's 20 points. Ronland Ranson had 13 points and Terrance Smith added 10.
"They just killed us rebounding and that really hurt us more than anything," said Kennett head coach Tim Turlington. "I think we were a little intimidated and rushed a few shots. We missed four layups in the first quarter. If we had come in and played confident and competitive then it might have been a little different."
NMCC will be going for its third straight district championship and the school's fifth overall tonight against Dexter, a team the Eagles defeated 65-53 on Jan. 31.
"We're glad to still be playing," said Holland. "Hopefully we'll come (tonight) and give a good performance. But we're excited about being in the championship."